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Celebrate Yonge on the Street

Last year, we wrote about Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s vision for a pedestrian friendly Yonge St. Today, we are happy to report that her vision has become a (temporary) reality. Here’s the scoop:

As part of the Celebrate Yonge project, for the next month (until September 19th), the main stretch of Yonge St. will be transformed into an urban playground designed by Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds. To make room for this venture, vehicular traffic between Gerrard and Queen Streets has been reduced to one lane for each direction of travel.  

Yonge St. just got a whole lot brighter and more pedestrian friendly. Image c/o Urban Toronto.

Evan Weinberg, Planning and Development Manager for the Downtown Yonge BIA has said that in planning the event, the BIA tried to identify a number of event spaces along Yonge St. to help people appreciate what it has to offer. Each block will have its own branding to highlight its specific features. The ultimate goal of the Downtown BIA, Weinberg says, is to create more space for more people to experience everything Yonge has to offer.

So, what can visitors expect? The strip will be decked out with a green oasis of trees, boulders, logs, grass, and soil. It will also feature a 30-seat amphitheatre built into the dirt, 3 patios, and a cedar fort. Some of the seating will be set aside for general public use, while other seating has been taken for private use, mostly by the pubs and restaurants that line the strip. This new set-up gives the city the opportunity to try out new licenses which allow servers to cross the sidewalk to serve alcoholic beverages.

Part of the ING Urban Forest. Image c/o Urban Toronto.

The planters that line the streets are sponsored by the city’s carpenters’ union. They tell the story of who is building this city. Each box was planted by different landscapers, nurseries, and florists from around the city. There was a design competition for the planters, so expect some really high quality arrangements along the strip.

One of the many planters lining Yonge St. Image c/o blogTO.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that Yonge St.has been taken over and made into a haven for pedestrians. In 1971, parts of Yonge St. were made completely car-free for weeks. This happened on several occasions during the summer in the 1970s. It meant an increase of visitors to the “street mall” of up to 50,000 people a day. However, merchant support for the malls waned when complaints of shoplifting and vagrancy arose.

One of the Yonge St. Malls, a fixture of the 1970s. Image c/o the Toronto Star.

On the project, Wong-Tam had this to say, “We’ve really been working with our stakeholders to create a whole new unique street experience that will open up the street for people and try to turn Yonge Street into a premier destination and enhance what we already have there.”

Wong-Tam believes that because Yonge is Toronto’s most recognized street, we really should be putting our best face forward where it’s concerned. She says this is especially important given the upcoming 2014 World Pride celebrations and the 2015 Pan Am Games. Weinberg also points out the fact that there is an economic value in investing in the public realm. He argues that this kind of revitalization of public space attracts people to eat out in restaurants more and also to enjoy shopping the area more.

You might be wondering, as you read about all these not-so-distant future events, what we can expect from Celebrate Yonge where this year’s edition of TIFF is concerned. Weinberg says that the Celebrate Yonge Project has been working closely with the people from TIFF and has opened a café in front of the Elgin Winter Garden theatre, which will be turned into a red carpet for the 11 days that TIFF will screen films there.

The cafe in front of the Elgin Winter Garden theatre for Celebrate Yonge will be turned into a red carpet for this year’s edition of TIFF. Image c/o Urban Toronto.

While there have been concerns that the project will cause vehicle congestion in the area, Wong-Tam doesn’t think it will be a serious issue because studies have shown that Yonge St. is actually under capacity in terms of the amount of vehicular traffic it can accommodate. In fact, the studies show that Yonge Street’s four lanes can accommodate 1,500 cars per hour, but typically see an average of 500-550 cars per hour (at peak hours!). Moreover, for the same strip, studies show that people outnumber cars by a stunning 200 to 1!

On speculation of the likelihood of Celebrate Yonge returning in the future, Wong-Tam said it would depend on the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area’s decision. However, the Communications Spokesperson for the BIA, Abigail Gamble, has said that the Celebrate Yonge festival will likely be a one-time event, as making it an annual thing with Rob Ford in office and his “war on the car” campaign promise still very much alive, would be nearly impossible.

An aerial view of the newly pedestrian-friendly strip. Image c/o blogTO.

Countering this position and perhaps supporting that of Wong-Tam, is this quote by Weinberg: “We’ll look at people’s reaction, we’ll get feedback from the businesses, we’ll look at the numbers: we have pedestrian and vehicle counters at five different intersections. It’s from all of that that we can see what the next stage should be.” The BIA has set up several mechanisms to track the success of this year’s festival, including: traffic monitoring, pedestrian counts, and sales and media monitoring. We’ll be better able to speculate on the success of this venture once these numbers are released, so stay tuned!

Do you have a comment about either the past or present pedestrianization of Yonge St.? We’d love to hear your stories, so please leave them below!


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